The Refugees (Family Reunion) Bill [HL] is a private member’s bill sponsored by Baroness Ludford (Liberal Democrat). It was introduced in the House of Lords on 8 June 2021.

Similar bills on the refugee family reunion rules were introduced in the 2017–19 and 2019–21 parliamentary sessions by Baroness Hamwee (Liberal Democrat). The 2017–19 bill, which had a number of differences compared to the following versions of the bill, completed its House of Lords stages but fell in the House of Commons due to prorogation. Details of the 2017–19 bill can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing on it.

What would the bill do?

Setting out the purpose of the bill, Baroness Ludford stated that:

Refugee family reunion is a vital way for families who have been torn apart to be safely reunited. In the five years to March 2021, almost 30,000 family reunion visas were granted, but currently the rules only permit an adult refugee to sponsor their spouse or partner and under-18 children to join them. Unlike every EU country except Denmark, the UK does not generally allow unaccompanied child refugees to sponsor family members to join them, Home Office discretion to do so being rarely used.

My bill would expand the current family reunion rules so that child refugees have a right to bring their parents and siblings to join them in the UK, as well as allowing refugees to be joined by their dependent children over 18, which could be refused only on grounds of national security. It is an important part of making the UK’s asylum system fairer, humane and more efficient by making it easier for all refugee families to reunite, and chimes with the Government’s stated intention of strengthening safe routes for those seeking protection in the UK and reducing dangerous irregular journeys. My bill is backed by the Families Together Coalition, a group of 60 leading organisations that support refugees and people seeking asylum.

The bill comprises of three clauses.

Clause 1 of the bill would require the Government to amend the UK’s immigration rules regarding provision for refugee family reunion. Subsection 1 of clause 1 states that the secretary of state must—within six months of the clause coming into force—lay a statement before Parliament of changes to the rules under section 3 of the Immigration Act 1971, which are to come into effect after 21 days. Subsection 2 requires the secretary of state to consult upon the changes and subsection 3 says that the statement laid must set out rules providing for leave to enter and remain in the UK for family members of a person granted refugee status or humanitarian protection. Subsection 5 sets out who is considered an applicant’s “family member” under the bill. This includes a:

  • parent, including an adoptive parent;
  • spouse, civil partner or unmarried partner;
  • child, including an adopted child, who is either:
    • under the age of 18, or
    • under the age of 25, but was either under the age of 18 or unmarried at the time the person granted asylum left their country of residence to seek asylum.
  • sibling, including an adoptive sibling, with the same conditions on age as those of an applicant’s child or adopted child; and
  • such other people that the secretary of state may determine, for example, having regard to the importance of maintaining family unity or the best interests of a child.

Clause 2 would amend schedule 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to provide for civil legal services to be made available to those with an application for leave to remain for the purposes of refugee family reunion.

Lastly, clause 3 contains the territorial extent and commencement provisions. It states that clause 1 would extend to the whole of the UK and clause 2 would extend to England and Wales only.

What is the background to the bill?

UK immigration rules

Under current UK immigration rules, an individual can apply to settle in the UK (known as indefinite leave to remain) if they have a residence card as either a refugee or person with humanitarian protection. As part of the application process, an individual may be able to include either a partner or any children as dependants on the settlement application if those dependants are already in the UK.

If the individual’s partner or child is not already in the UK, they may apply for them to join them under the family reunion rules. This applies if they were part of a family before being forced to leave their country and if the individual applying has refugee status, five years’ humanitarian protection or settlement on protection grounds, but does not yet have British citizenship. However, an application cannot be made for a partner or child to join an individual in the UK if the person in the UK is under 18, or if they have not received a decision on their asylum claim.

Partners and children must also meet certain eligibility requirements:

  • Partner: This must be someone the applicant is in a “genuine relationship” with. An applicant will be required to prove that they are either married or in a civil partnership with their partner. In cases where an applicant is not married or in a civil partnership, a partner may be able to join the applicant in the UK if the applicant:
    • was given refugee status or humanitarian protection on or after 9 October 2006; or
    • lived together in a relationship like a marriage or civil partnership for two years and has been given asylum or humanitarian protection after 9 October 2006.
  • Children: To be included on an application, a child must be:
    • under the age of 18;
    • going to live with the applicant and their partner; and
    • not be married or in a civil partnership.

Children over the age of 18 can also be included in a settlement application if they were granted the status of being an applicant’s dependant when the applicant received their original grant of asylum and leave to enter or remain, or if they were granted leave to enter or remain by applying for family reunion.

An application under the family reunion rules may include a child over 18 if they were under 18 at the start of the application or in other limited circumstances (for example, if they are not leading an “independent life”).

If an application is successful, the individual and their dependents will have the same permissions to come to and stay in the UK.

Data on family reunion

In March 2021, the Home Office published data on the number of family reunion visas granted to family members of refugees since 2010. The data revealed that the number of family reunion visas granted had peaked in 2019 with 7,456 granted. This represented a 52.6 percent increase compared to family reunion visas granted in 2010 (4,886). However, the data for 2020 showed a decrease in the number of family reunion visas granted compared with the 2019 figures, from 7,456 to 5,428.

This data is detailed in the table below, and shows those visas granted for under 18s and for those aged 18 and above.

Table 1: total family reunion visas granted since 2010, by age
Date of visa granted
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Under 18 3,252 2,907 2,373 2,581 2,811 3,036 3,613 2,665 2,568 3,694 2,992
18+ 1,634 1,397 1,295 1,540 1,639 1,813 2,426 2,534 3,144 3,762 2,436
Total 4,886 4,304 3,668 4,121 4,450 4,849 6,039 5,199 5,712 7,456 5,428

Resettlement schemes

The UK has run a number of resettlement schemes for refugees over recent years. Most recently, on 18 August 2021, the Government announced a scheme targeted at refugees from Afghanistan, in light of the recent developments in the country. In its first year, it aims to resettle 5,000 Afghan nationals who are at risk due to the current crisis. Priority will be given to women and girls and religious and other minorities who are “most at risk of human rights abuses and dehumanising treatment by the Taliban”. The Government stated the scheme would be kept under review, and that it was planning for a total of up to 20,000 refugees to be resettled under it in the long-term.

Other schemes include:

New Plan for Immigration

In March 2021, Home Secretary Priti Patel made a statement in the House of Commons setting out the Government’s New Plan for Immigration. In her statement, the Home Secretary said that the plan centred around three objectives. They are to:

  • increase the “fairness of our system” to protect and support those in need of asylum. This would involve granting people coming to the UK through resettlement routes with indefinite leave to remain;
  • deter illegal entry into the UK, consequently “breaking the business model” of people smugglers. The Home Secretary announced that how people enter the UK, whether legally or illegally, “will have an impact on how their asylum claim progresses, and on their status in the UK if that claim is successful”. As part of this, she said that the Government will “make every effort” to remove those who enter the UK illegally “having travelled through a safe country first in which they could and should have claimed asylum”; and
  • remove “more easily” those with “no right” to be in the UK. The Home Secretary stated that this will involve establishing a “fast-track appeals process” and “streamlining” the appeals system to “make quicker removal decisions” for “failed asylum seekers and dangerous foreign criminals”.

Many of the proposed measures are due to be introduced in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently being considered in the House of Commons. Further information can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing for the Nationality and Borders Bill.

Legal aid

As part of changes made under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, refugee family reunion was removed from the scope of legal aid in England and Wales. In 2019, the Government introduced secondary legislation—the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid for Separated Children) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2019—to make provision for separated migrant children to be eligible for legal aid for civil legal services in relation to immigration applications and applications for registration as a British citizen or subject.

In June 2020, the Government was asked in a written question what plans it had to reintroduce legal aid for refugee family reunion cases. Responding, the then House of Lords Spokesperson at the Ministry of Justice, Lord Keen of Elie, stated that legal aid for refugee family reunion “may be available” under the Exceptional Case Funding Scheme, where failure to provide legal aid would mean there is a “breach or a risk of breach of the individual’s human rights”, and subject to means and merits tests. Lord Keen also spoke about the Government amending the scope of legal aid in 2019 (as mentioned above) so that separated migrant children could receive legal aid.

What have others said?

Several bodies, charities and organisations have previously criticised the UK’s immigration rules and the visa application process regarding family reunion.

In October 2020, the then Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, published a report following an inspection into family reunion applications between June and December 2019. In the report, Mr Bolt described the application process as “potentially confusing”. In particular, he criticised the guidance provided for applicants. He argued that the guidance invites applicants to provide other evidence confirming their identity but states that it is “not mandatory”. He contends that this is “potentially misleading”, as “without sufficient evidence the application will be refused”. In addition, Mr Bolt called on the Home Office to “demonstrate that it had indeed listened to stakeholders”, who had called for changes to the family reunion process, including expanding the eligibility criteria for sponsors and applicants and enabling access to legal aid.

The Home Office published its response to the chief inspector’s report in October 2020. Addressing concerns with the application process, the department stated that UK Visas and Immigration, the agency responsible for running the UK’s visa service, was “committed to improving every aspect of the family reunion application process”. Turning to calls from stakeholders to expand the eligibility criteria for applicants, the department stated that there were “other provisions” in the immigration rules which catered for extended family members. In response to concerns about access to legal aid, the Home Office said that the scope for legal aid had recently been amended in 2019 (see above).

Refugee Action, a charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers, has also criticised UK immigration rules, describing them as “very restrictive”. On its webpage, the charity argues that the rules “exclude the complex relationships that affect families torn apart by war”, such as people caring for orphaned younger siblings or unaccompanied children separated from their parents. Refugee Action has called on the Government to expand the immigration rules to ensure that “more family members are eligible to be reunited with loved ones”.

Similarly, the Families Together coalition has called on the Government to change the current immigration rules, which the coalition argues are “already too restrictive”. The coalition also states that if the Government are “serious in their ambition to expand ‘safe’ routes”, they should change existing family reunion rules by:

  • expanding the criteria of who qualifies as a family member for refugee family reunion by allowing adult refugees in the UK to sponsor their adult children, and siblings who are under 25 years old and their parents;
  • giving unaccompanied refugee children in the UK the right to sponsor their parents or siblings who are under the age of 25; and
  • reintroducing legal aid for all refugee family reunion cases.

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Cover image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash.